The 1966 film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, not only shattered the formulaic Western white hat/ black hat prototypes that preceded it, but using the old American West as a backdrop, painted a dystopian picture of society that in many ways mirrors our current cultural zeitgeist.
In an early scene, Tuco (Eli Wallach), a seedy Mexican bandit, rope around his neck, sits on a horse. Town yokels gather around to watch his hanging. An official reads off a list of Tuco’s crimes which include murder, armed robbery, theft of sacred objects, bigamy, inciting prostitution, and using marked cards. Before Tuco swings, a bullet severs the rope, allowing him to ride to safety. The sharpshooting savior? Blondie (Clint Eastwood), Tuco’s partner in an ongoing scam to defraud the draconian criminal justice system.
The scam works by Blondie turning in a wanted Tuco to the authorities, collecting the bounty, freeing Tuco before he can be hung, and then the two split the bounty, and repeat the cycle. Like our own world, this justice system operates through financial incentives, in this case paying money to bounty hunters for capturing wanted criminals.
On this streamlined judge, jury, and executioner conveyor belt, one can assume that hanging someone for a crime is more important than guilt or innocence. Our privatized prisons are equally perverse, for their main concern is filling up beds for profit, not guilt, innocence, or rehabilitation. The current U.S. asset seizure laws which allow police departments to seize a citizen’s money and property before a conviction is another example of financially incentivised legal robbery. And don’t forget the super rich, a group that never gets punished for their crimes. But Tuco and Blondie don’t have badges, or an expensive legal team to hide behind.
After Blondie frees Tuco, Blondie decides to end their business relationship, as he feels Tuco’s bounty is too small for the effort. Blondie leaves a broke Tuco stranded in a searing desert. A dehydrated and vengeful Tuco eventually makes it back to civilization, and sets out after Blondie. After a circuitous series of harrowing events, the two partner up again to recover a shipment of stolen gold, as each learns partial information about the cemetery where the treasure is located. Tuco knows the name of the cemetery, and Blondie knows the specific grave the treasure is buried in. Both men guard their part of the secret from the other.
Mistaken for Confederate soldiers, Blondie and Tuco wind up prisoners in a Civil War POW camp. Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef), a ruthless hit man introduced earlier in the movie, is also looking for the gold. Now a Union soldier, Angel Eyes uses his position of power inside the prison to torture and rob the inmates. He has a past with Blondie and Tuco, and when the two men are brought in, Angel Eyes discovers they know about the gold. In a painful scene, Angel Eyes has his goon beat Tuco to a mushy pulp, and upon threat of getting his eyes gouged out, Tuco gives up the name of the cemetery. Knowing Blondie won’t talk, Angel Eyes offers to become Blondie’s new partner. Blondie accepts, and the two men set off for the gold. Tuco is shipped off to hang, but makes his escape on the train ride to the gallows.
Like our own endless war society, profiteering and torture are rife in this Civil War era setting. When the foundations of a culture start to crumble, the lowest degenerates of that society crawl from the cesspool to take positions of power. In the case of the film, the sociopathic killer Angel Eyes capitalizes on his military rank to exploit prisoners of war. In our debauched government, a criminal hustler like Steve Mnuchin gets the Secretary of Treasury post, a job that should be reserved for someone with a high level of integrity- not a lowlife grifter.
The Trump cabinet is stocked with other depraved miscreants, but to be fair to Trump, so was the cabinets of the Obama and GW Bush administrations, although those criminals hid behind more polished social veneers, while the Trump arrogator represents criminality in a more crude and unrefined state.
In this Wild West dystopian historical paradox, exploitation, betrayal, theft, murder, and brutality formulate the cultural milieu. No one can be trusted, and society functions on a base animalistic level. Although Blondie is “the Good”, he commits criminal acts, and is greed driven. However, compared to the other characters, and in the context of his morally ambiguous world, Blondie is the anti-hero protagonist. By the end of the film, Blondie even completes a character arc, albeit a small and subtle one.
Tuco, “the ugly”, manages to come across as a sympathetic character despite his moral shortcomings. Driven by rage, physicality, and greed, he is a product of his environment. We are afforded some insight into his past, and the events that shaped him when he reunites briefly with his priest brother.
Angel Eyes, “the bad”, is the refined product of a debased society. A true sadistic sociopath, he too is driven by greed, but unlike Blondie and Tuco, he retains no trace of humanity. He is Dick Cheney with balls- capable of any and every inhumane act to achieve his objective. However unlike the chicken hawk coward Cheney who sends others to their deaths without personal risk, Angel Eyes is willing to do his own dirty work to get what he wants.
The action and plot move fluidly throughout the entire film, and the climactic final standoff between the three men is a tension building masterpiece. Sergio Leone, the movie’s Italian director, and one of the co-writers of the screenplay, channeled his vision of post Kennedy early stage Vietnam War America into the Western genre. Moreover, he took the classic hero’s journey, three talented actors, a haunting soundtrack, beautiful cinematography, a solid script, and created a sublime work of art that has earned its rightful place in the annals of cinematic history.